Article of the Day: Have You Ever Wondered About the Origins of English?

Nothing comes out of thin air; everything has a core root, which it can be traced back to. The same applies to languages. A language is a process that passes through many channels to become the language spoken today. This process of change is vital, because a language that undergoes changes is alive.

Just as we have the Bantu language family where African languages, such as Xhosa, evolved from, the English language has a family history too. It derives from the Proto-Indo-European language group.

A 3000-4,000 year-old mummy of a woman with red hair and Indo-European features found in the Tien Shan Mountains in northwest China.

Most of us associate English with England, which is not necessarily wrong, but English was not born there (and did not originate there). In this article I will briefly discuss the origins of English and why English is the official language in Namibia today.

The English language traces its original roots back to Neolithic (late Stone Age) people, known as Indo-Europeans or Proto-Indo-Europeans, who lived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia around 5000 BC.

This is however not the precise time, as different hypotheses suggest different dates. The Indo-European language family is actually a large, widespread family of languages that contains about 140 languages, classified into 11 groups. One of these languages is Germanic, where from English developed

That is not to say it jumped from Germanic right into English, as there were other languages in between. One branch was the West-Germanic strand, which evolved into Anglo-Frisian, that in turn flowed into Old English.

If this article was written in Old English most people would not be able to read or understand it, as in the 21st century we use modern English.

Did you know the word “stān” is what we now know as “stone” today? Archaic sentences would read like “my life is run his compass”, whereas today one should say: “my life has run its compass.”

To give an example, would you really understand this sentence? “… And that it prouffyte to alle them that shal rede or here redde, and may increase in them virtue and expelle uyce and synne that by the ensanmple of the holy sayntes amend theyr lyuyng here in thys shorte lyf that by their merytes they and I may come to everllastyng and blysse in heuen.”

Modern English Translation:
“…And that it profit to all them that shall read or here read, and may increase in them virtue and expel vice and sin that by example of the holy saints amend their lying here in this short life that by their merits they and I may come to everlasting and bliss in heaven.”

The spread of Indo-European languages.

The obstacles and influences that the language and its speakers were subject to brought about all these transitions in English. They may be considered as internal factors that changed the language lexicon, phonology, morphology and syntax, as well as external factors, including social, political, technological and cultural factors.

To avoid confusion with the English family, think of a normal family (it started with your great grandparents and forefathers and the channel goes on until it reaches you). Language is also a process!

One may wonder why this sudden interest in its origins, but remember English is widely used in Namibia, and it is widely known that “a language may be important as a lingua franca in a country or region whose diverse populations would otherwise be unable to communicate.”

This statement holds critical importance in the Namibian context.
Hook up two people in Windhoek for the first time; one from the north (Oshiwambo and monolingual) and one hailing from the south (Afrikaans and monolingual). You can foretell the disaster!

The crucial role of the English language in Namibia is in the education sector. In Namibia with its great diversity of indigenous languages, English has made tertiary education a smooth ride.

Equally significant, English has made communication possible in our multilingual society. In terms of business English is also the language of commerce that connects Namibia to the rest of the world.

Monika Nakale is a Master of Arts in English student at the University of Namibia.

This article appeared in on 14 December 2016

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